The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery: The Union Regiment with Largest Number of Men Killed in the Civil War
The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was formed in August 1862 as an infantry regiment, the 18th Maine Volunteer Infantry. The commanding officer was Colonel Daniel Chaplin, formerly an officer in the 2nd Maine Infantry. The regiment was sent to Washington D.C. and was put to work building and occupying the defensive fortifications of the city. In January of 1863, the unit was renamed the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery and expanded from the usual ten companies of 100 men each for a typical infantry regiment to an enrollment of 12 companies of 150 men or 1800 total. As the war went on, the men of the 1st Maine continued the relatively safe duty of tending to the big siege guns and cannon of Washington’s forts.
Off to the Front
All that changed in the spring of 1864. In early May, the Union’s Army of the Potomac embarked on a new campaign and suffered thousands of casualties in the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant ordered five of the heavy artillery regiments to the front as reinforcements, and the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery left Washington on May 15th, joining the army near Spotsylvania, where the regiment was assigned to Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s 2nd Corps. Although it retained the designation as a Heavy Artillery regiment, the 1st Maine would fight as infantry for the rest of the war.
Near Spotsylvania Court House May 19th, 1864
On May 19th, the 1st Maine and 7th New York Heavy Artillery regiments were ordered to attack Confederate forces that threatened the Second Corps’ supply wagon trains. Arriving on the scene, the 1st Maine formed in line of battle by company and commenced firing for well over two hours. Many on the line were standing completely exposed, but methodically loaded their muskets, aimed, and fired. This textbook manner of fighting was brave but very costly.
The Confederates were finally driven from the field after more Union troops arrived. The fighting had taken a tremendous toll on the 1st Maine: 155 killed or mortally wounded and 369 wounded. One of the wounded men, Private Charles J. House, recalled later that if the regiment had not advanced as far forward as they had, they would have been able to fire from partial cover; or if they had simply hit the ground instead of standing up the whole time, they would have come away with a lot fewer casualties. House returned to the battlefield that night and described the scene. “I noticed eight or ten of our men laid out side by side, the beams of the moon struggling through the fleecy clouds, lighting their upturned faces all smeared with the smoke of battle, some showing gaping wounds, and all ghastly and lifeless”. The 1st Maine’s total loss of 524 casualties in this action of May 19th was the highest that any one Union regiment had suffered in one engagement in the war up to that point.
Petersburg, Virginia June 18th, 1864
Grant continued to drive further south, clashing with General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at several points. The Union Army crossed the James River in mid June and was outside Petersburg on June 15th. Grant wanted to take Petersburg before Lee could reinforce the city, but attacks over the next two days failed to do so, and Confederate defenders moved into the city’s defensive earthworks. Grant decided to make one more attempt to take the city by storm on June 18th.
By the time the 1st Maine was ordered forward, several Union attacks on the Confederate lines had ended in failure. The 1st Maine’s brigade commander, Brigadier General Gershom Mott, argued against another assault, believing it to be a hopeless undertaking. But the 2nd Corps commander, Major General David Birney, was under pressure to attack. The order stood, and the 1st Maine formed in three lines of four companies each. They were to lead the attack, with other units following in support. At 4:30 in the afternoon, the 1st Maine stepped off from the Prince George Court House Road and advanced towards the Confederate lines some 350 yards away.
The 1st Maine was soon hit with musket and artillery fire. Private Joel Brown recalled “I saw the works plainly before me. I saw the blinding flash of red flame run along the crest of those works and heard the deafening crash as the awful work began.” The supporting units also advanced, but soon realized the attack would end in failure. These were veterans who had been through other futile frontal assaults during the war, and they quickly withdrew to cover. The barrage of musket and artillery fire was now concentrated on the 1st Maine alone. As more and more men went down, the others saw that it was almost certain death to continue and turned back. Brown remembered that on the desperate withdrawal the ground was “covered thick with those who were down, the wounded, dead and dying together. How I ever got back I cannot tell”.
The assault lasted between ten and 15 minutes. In that time, 632 men became casualties, including 210 killed or mortally wounded. It was the greatest number of casualties suffered by any one Union regiment in a single action in the entire war.
Colonel Chaplin (pictured at left) was horrified at the carnage he had witnessed. Private Brown saw Chaplin shortly after returning from the charge. “I went up the road towards the left to where the colonel was, just as Gen. Birney rode up, and heard him say, ‘Col Chaplin, where are your men?’ and I shall never forget his answer: ‘There they are, out on that field where your tried veterans dared not go. Here, you can take my sword; I have no use for it now” and the old hero sat down in the road and cried like a child”.
Between May 19th and June 18th, the First Maine Heavy Artillery had sustained 1,179 casualties. This includes a small number of casualties in actions that occurred between the two major battles.
Despite the high casualty list, the regiment continued to serve until the end of the war, and took part in many of the actions in and around Petersburg in 1864-5. Colonel Chaplin was mortally wounded in August while investigating enemy positions from a Union picket line. Chaplin had become depressed after witnessing the slaughter of so many of his soldiers during the June 18th assault. His death was not unexpected by many who knew him. The regiment’s final action of the war was at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek on April 6th, 1865, during the closing days of the Appomattox Campaign.
The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery lost a total of 423 killed in the war, all of them in just 10 months. That total was the greatest number killed of any Union regiment in the Civil War. Today, a monument in Petersburg National Battlefield dedicated to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery stands near the location of the regiment’s fateful June 18th charge.
“The Bloody First Maine” by Earl J. Coates. Civil War Times Illustrated, Volume XI Number 4, July 1972.
“The Charge of the Heavy Artillery”, by Joel F. Brown Maine Bugle, January 1894.
A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick Dyer
The First Maine Heavy Artillery by Horace Shaw
“How the First Maine Heavy Artillery Lost 1179 Men in 30 Days” by Charles J. House. Maine Bugle, April 1895.
The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865
by Noah Andre Trudeau
Regimental Strengths and Losses in the American Civil War 1861-1865 by William F. Fox.
Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe